To win, Democrats need to make the midterms all about Trump


If the Democrats can make the midterms about President Trump, as the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggests, Republicans are in deep trouble. The whole article’s here, but we reprint their table  for discussion:



Good news for analysts: the poll ran with multiple choices for approve/disapprove, differentiating between “Strongly” and “Somewhat” for each. Those indicators measure strength/softness of support and make it easier to draw conclusions about how voters feel. (I know, I know: logically, anyone who “somewhat approves” of anything must also somewhat disapprove of it. If you think politics/polling is strictly logic, please see yourself out!)

Let's get down to the basics. Every ethical political campaign has two goals:

  1. Make sure your base votes
  2. Convince Persuadable Voters (sometimes called “Undecideds”) to vote for your candidate.

(The less-than-ethical “dissuade your opponent’s base from voting” will be left for a Dark Arts column another day.)

Getting your own base to vote is an important but largely mechanical task —pester the heck out of them— so let’s put that aside for now, even if one party may be better at it than the other. We can only see who’s doing a good job there anyway once Early Voting opens.

Let’s look at how the Dems appear to have a much greater opportunity with persuadable voters than the GOP does. Persuadables are the “Somewhat” categories in the chart. As a candidate, you want:

  • Few Persuadables among your own identified voter base (votes you can lose)
  • Many Persuadables among the other party’s identified voters (votes you can steal)
  • Among Independents, a sum of (those breaking your way + Persuadables) as high as you can get, but a reasonable target is 66-70%.

The Dems are hitting the jackpot in this snapshot 3.5 months before midterms. Only 14% of self-identified Dems are persuadable on President Trump (5% somewhat approve, 9% somewhat disapprove), which is half of the Republican total of persuadable voters (28%).

Let's look at Independent voters. The total of those breaking their way on Trump (here, Strongly Disapprove: 46%) plus persuadable voters (32%) is a massive 78%. Among Independent voters, if President Trump is the focus, Dems can fight for 78% of the votes. On those combat terms, the GOP can only fight for 48% of the Independent voters.  This is good news for the Democrats.

Of course, this battle must still be joined and eventually won by somebody. But barring political malpractice, the midterm strategies are clear: this poll shows the Dems need to make the midterms all about Trump. Conversely, the GOP needs to swing the focus to policy issues where they think the public appreciates their work the most (as the poll also showed, the economy. The tax cuts might not be too far in the rear-view mirror to be worth talking about either).

The party not holding the White House tends to run pretty well in the midterms. If the Dems want to move this from a typically-positive-year to a wave, they have their way forward. Yes, it’s tricky to "run against someone" rather than running “for” an ideal: one takes the risk of being perceived as too negative. But it also makes for easier messaging. So many of the issues facing America are nuanced (immigration, gun rights, race relations), and it’s hard, if not impossible, to get the nuance right and build consensus. At this stage, there’s rather little subtlety required besides “Trump Stinks”.

The story of the 2018 campaign will be whether or not the Dems make that message stick. If yes, they take the House. If no, as in 2016, they’ll snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.